The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: J

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Jesus, perfect obedience or faith?

The Law is said to have in fact contained a promise of eternal life in reward for perfect obedience and to have actually conferred it on Jesus because he kept it faultlessly. Such reasoning is false. Three epistles (Hebrews, Romans and Galatians), prove it to be so.

Hebrews. None could dispute that the ministration of righteousness is a better covenant than that of Sinai if only because it is established upon better promises (Heb 8:6). One of the chief of these is the promise of eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15). Eternal life is a prerequisite of such an inheritance: a man, to possess an inheritance for ever, must, as JT logically argues, be made immortal to enable him to possess it everlastingly. There was thus a distinct promise of eternal life in the everlasting covenant which, apart from any other, constituted it a better covenant than the covenant of Sinai, for the latter contained no equivalent promise. This fact is easily verified from the Old Testament itself: we look in vain in the Sinai covenant for any such promise, explicit or implicit, in reward for perfect obedience.

Romans. A man who earns a reward by effort receives it as his due. In the words of Paul, to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace but of debt (Rom 4:4). Paul therefore concludes logically that if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory. But what are the facts? What saith the Scripture? Abraham had faith in God, and that faith was reckoned to him for righteousness (Rom 4:2,3). That is, Abraham did not receive the reward by works. Why? Was it simply because, through the weakness of the flesh, he obviously could not obtain it by merit? By no means: Christ did in fact live sinlessly, and if for that reason the Law had power to confer life on him, then the reward must have been reckoned to him of debt. But Paul shows that the principle which applied in the case of Abraham applied also in that of Christ, his Seed, for the promise that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, though law, but through the righteousness of faith (Rom 4:13).

Galatians. A human covenant, once ratified, is binding: though it be but a mans covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth or addeth thereto (Gal 3:15). So it is with God's arrangements: This I say, adds Paul, that the covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the Law which was four hundred and thirty years after cannot disannul that it should make the promise of none effect (Gal 3:17). Such, however, would be the case if the Sinai covenant had contained the same promise: it would have been a modification of the Abrahamic covenant, and have rendered it obsolete, for if the inheritance be of law it is no more of promise (Gal 3:18). Is such a contingency conceivable? Is the Law against the promises of God? God forbid, for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law (Gal 3:21). In view of this statement the Law of Moses could not possibly have had the essential power to confer life. The law made nothing perfect. It was but the bringing in of a better hope (Heb 7:19, mg).

Habakkuk. Habakkuk's words (quoted in all three epistles) settle the matter finally so far as the position of Christ is concerned: The just shall live by faith (Hab 2:4). Variant renderings for Habakkuk's statement as quoted in Heb 10:38 are helpful: My righteous one shall live by faith (RV): it is by faith that my righteous servant shall live (Weym); and again, My just one by faith shall live (Diag). Stephen tells us that the prophets shewed before of the coming of the Just One (Act 7:52). Jesus was without doubt the Holy One and the Just of whom Habakkuk spoke (Act 3:14). Why was he called the Just One? Because he lived a sinless life, observing the Law perfectly. How then did he, the Holy One and the Just, attain to life eternal? Habakkuk answers, by faith. Why not by works, even in his case? Because God GAVE the inheritance BY PROMISE to Abraham, and if to Abraham then to Jesus also, for, as we have already seen, to Abraham AND HIS SEED were the promises made -- to Abraham and Christ, that is, since Christ is the seed (Gal 3:16).

We now perceive the twofold weakness of the Law of Moses. Firstly, no one could keep it: as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse, for it is written, cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them (Gal 3:10). Secondly, even if a man kept it, it lacked the essential power to confer life. We find this illustrated in Christ. He kept the Law perfectly, but that no man is justified by law in the sight of God is evident: for, The just shall live by faith (Gal 3:11). Had it been otherwise -- if righteousness came by law -- then Christ died needlessly (Gal 3:21). But Christ did not die in vain, but to make good the deficiencies of the Law.

Yet he died a sinless man. Necessarily so, for without perfect obedience on his part to the Law of Moses, righteousness could not justly be imputed to those who could not keep it (and so were unjust). But, by virtue of the fact that he offered himself without spot to God, his blood purges our conscience (Heb 9:14) and by it we are justified (or declared righteous), our faith being counted for righteousness for his sake (Rom 5:9; 4:5).

His sinlessness emphasized by contrast the wickedness of the hands that crucified him. If only because sinners could not be permitted to triumph over the One in whom God was well pleased, it was essential for him to rise. But altogether apart from this, God's purpose in and through him could not be frustrated, and necessitated his resurrection. So God raised him up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. He is now, in consequence, alive for evermore, having as our forerunner entered into that within the veil, to which the righteousness which is of the Law could never give access. So the Apostle bids us be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience, inherit the promises (Heb 6:12) (RIC).

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